GIVING GIFTS IS NOT UNIQUE TO HUMANS

by Whit Gibbons

December 24, 2017

People do few things that some other animal does not also do.

Obviously, animals, eat, sleep, reproduce and rear their young as humans do, but they also engage in activities that you might not expect. During this holiday season, a column about one of those behaviors – and an extraordinary example of it – seems apropos.

Many animals besides humans are gift givers. Wolves and lions, bluebirds and cardinals bring food to their babies and mates. Bower birds of New Guinea take gift giving to the next level. To attract a female, the male uses twigs and vines to build an elaborate ground structure known as a bower. Brightly colored berries and flowers are arranged around the bower to make it attractive to the female. These objects make the bower design more intricate but are neither a major food source nor otherwise useful. They are merely decorative touches, like a Christmas tree with lots of ornaments or an elaborately wrapped package.

Crows that are fed on a regular basis and learn to trust the people feeding them sometimes bring those people shiny trinkets. Even invertebrates such as ants, termites and bees demonstrate the spirit of giving. A queen bee sits in her parlor producing young while accepting a steady supply of food brought to her by the workers. Sometimes gift giving can go a bit too far. Certain male spiders give the ultimate gift when they become the main meal for the female they have just mated with. Gift giving among nonhuman animals is not altruistic behavior. An animal giving a gift is doing so for a self-serving reason – to raise its young, to attract a mate, to survive by a division of labor or by bonding within a group. Gifts have practical value for the giver.

One of our dogs, who looked formidable but was not aggressive, made the most memorable presentation of a gift I have seen. To a stranger, Gilbey might have looked like a large, long-toothed, throat-ripping Doberman-Rottweiler mix. But he acted more like a kitten in a dog suit. His watchdog role was to give a deep bark and alert Nero Wolfe, our real dog, that danger lurked. But even for a gentle dog, he did something remarkable when friends brought their 2-month-old baby for a visit and put him on a blanket on the floor. When Gilbey came into the room, he gave a disinterested sniff at the baby and then went about doing whatever dogs do while people are talking.

After a few minutes, Gilbey left the room and returned with a dog bone in his mouth (not the bone of another dog but the kind that comes in a box from the grocery store). Knowing how jealously he guarded these valuable objects from the other dog and the cat, we were amazed to see him walk over to the baby and drop the bone on the blanket. He then moved back a foot or so, lay down and watched. Without any doubt, he had presented the baby with a gift. I think this kind act was a holdover from the dog's ancestral past, not a product of domestication. Many animals give gifts to others of their species, and certainly wolves, the highly social ancestors of dogs, qualify in this regard by sharing their prey with other members of the pack. Gilbey clearly still had some wolf in him.

As humans, we have many animal traits that have been molded by our culture over the ages. Sometimes the true origin and ancestral purpose of a behavior become lost in the evolutionary past, leading us to think of ourselves as having risen above the rest of the animals. Maybe we have in some instances, and perhaps gift giving is one of them. Certainly for many people giving gifts is prompted by the belief that it is truly more blessed to give than to receive.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)

 

 
SREL HomeUGA Home